In addition to being a wonderful writer and all-round artist, Craig Lucas possesses a virtue many artists lack - he’s excellent at replying to emails. As you’ll see below, he’s working on several projects at the moment - including Amélie on Broadway this Spring - but took time out of his busy schedule to do this interview with us, cramming more wit and insight into one email than any I’ve ever read.

THE DIONYSIAN

It's hard to know where to begin. Your career has covered so much ground. So I'd better ask you. Where does the Craig Lucas story begin?

CRAIG LUCAS

I wrote plays as a kid, including ones I performed with marionettes at children’s birthday parties for cash. The cash was good. But the discovery of a place between the one in my head and the one outside, one that could be shared by me and those outside, has kept me chasing after the feeling ever since.


THE DIONYSIAN

Is it true that Stephen Sondheim encouraged you to be a writer full-time?

CRAIG LUCAS

Yes. We had corresponded since I was in my early 20’s. I gave him the first act of my first play and he told me I was a writer, that I might enjoy being a writer more than I did being a performer, which turned out to be true in an important way. He has seemed interested in what I write, and of course the reverse remains true. His approach to making new work, how he frames that work in relation to the audience, has remained an ethical underpinning for me. So much theater-making, at least in New York, is about allowing the audience to dictate the terms. It’s similar to American politics, so much is about polling and saying what you believe the citizens want to hear, whereas Mr. Sondheim’s thinking, at least the way I understood it, has to do with saying what you want the audience to hear; you listen to them to see if they are perceiving it clearly, but they are not dictating the content. It’s two separate universes of thought on making art.


THE DIONYSIAN

The New York Times once described you as "the author of great toxic fairy tales for grown-ups”.

CRAIG LUCAS

Yes, I’ve thought about that quote. Are they toxic or are they intended as a kind

of antidote to what’s toxic in America? Perhaps the person who wrote that senses toxicity and needs to place it somewhere outside of the self. As it happens there’s a lot of that going around.


THE DIONYSIAN

Do you have an audience or a style in mind when you sit down to write a new play?

CRAIG LUCAS

You know, I suppose I do, but I don’t know if such an audience exists. I imagine a lot of smart, engaged and engaging people with ears and eyes open, hearts open too. But of course that isn’t what it’s like, it’s a lot of different kinds of people, some of whom are hoping to be transported out of reality into a separate place where they can take a break from their painful daily lives, plus people who have very set notions about what makes a good work of theatrical art, things based on Aristotle or Walter Kerr, and they all meet you somewhere between where you are (or think you are) and where they are, and then they spring to some kind of life, if you’re lucky, and a lot of time what they think they see as being in the play throws off sparks, some of it contentious. If you’re lucky, I guess. I have had people in the audience—absolute strangers—shout at me, things like: “Why do you hate America?” (at a preview of SMALL TRAGEDY at Playwrights Horizons) or “Why do you lie about men and women when everyone knows that men never do their fair share of work in a marriage!” (at a screening of THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS in Toronto).

I guess I write for the person I’d like to be in conversation with. No, I don’t think that’s right. I think I write for the best parts of me in hopes that other people will find meaning.


THE DIONYSIAN

What's usually the starting point for you when you begin a new play?

CRAIG LUCAS

Sometimes it's an inciting event (like the first scene of RECKLESS, the idea of a husband having last minute regrets over having arranged his wife’s murder and confessing that to her) or sometimes it’s something more technical (with PRAYER FOR MY ENEMY I wanted to bring the two sides of a dangerous road rage incident face to face sometime after the fact—something about the violence immanent in road rage, especially during the Iraq war, seemed to me to say something about where we were as a country, though I could never have imagined at that time that things would have swung even farther out to the right, to a place where the foundational ideas of our republic were thrown so violently into question; Steve Bannon is so much more ludicrous and violently insane than even Dick Cheney)—things come to me, as they do all writers, and when there’s an urgency to them, I listen. Right now I’m in the middle of the last stages of a few musicals that were not my ideas, things that were brought to me, and while I was on a break for the holidays, the demands being made on my psyche by the reality of this recent election along with something that happened in my family around the same time made me see something I did not quite see or understand before, and so I wrote a play quite quickly to talk about the condition of our republic in the face of these pressures and genuinely and alarming insanities—it’s a two character play called DEATH OF THE REPUBLIC. I had to write about this moment before it becomes too late. The freedom to speak freely is dangerous.


THE DIONYSIAN

You've worked successfully across plays, musicals, opera and film. How does your process change from working in a solitary fashion to a collaborative one? And how do you manage to juggle all the different projects?

CRAIG LUCAS

Well, you can only work on one thing at a time. I can’t do rewrites on a new play in the morning and then work on a musical in the afternoon. The unconscious needs time to amp up and be framed properly and the days have to be structured to allow continuity. No distractions. No stimulating conversation. “Controlled hysteria” is what Arthur Miller called it. I have a colleague who likes to call me about things that are happening on more than one front—we share a number of projects in various stages of development across years of time—and I can’t make the leaps in the ways he can. I’m on one ship and it is sailing in one direction. I can finish a chunk of work on something and then gear up on another front, but that itself takes time. And as most writers probably feel, it takes days to be confidently in the saddle (my god, I’m so sorry about these transportation similes) and big interruptions last longer than mere hours, they can knock you off for days at a time. Momentum is real. Stopping to attend a bunch of auditions clears the brain and every single part of the brain then needs to be prepped again from scratch.

In terms of moving from the solitary to the collaborative, that’s one of the joys. When you’re married, you treasure that solitary time, but you can only really treasure it because it isn’t permanent. When I’ve been single, it’s much less precious and remarkable to have long stretches of alone time. Learning what to do with alone time, how to be in that, was for me an important part of becoming an adult. At first I couldn’t tolerate it. Like John McPhee, I had to be tied to my desk and forced to be alone (with bucket to pee in). Once the writing became Second Nature (and that only took about a decade), I found I had the opposite problem: I didn’t like to stop working. Traveling and having fun and being with people without writing was next to impossible. I write to figure out who I am and how to live, so that’s a different problem. Writing is unimaginably difficult but not writing is even worse. Being in a room with colleagues, or Skyping with them if need be, is pure joy. The conflicts are real, obviously, but the process of working through those conflicts is a constant reminder than human beings are essentially social creatures, that any problem is capable of being solved if there is good faith, good will. Rehearsals for a new play are an ongoing proof that people can govern themselves. Doing a new play is living evidence that what now exists in Congress is bad faith. It’s about profit.  It’s one class bullying another, beating it down with dictatorial will and inhumane rage, fueled by nothing but greed, stubbornness, ignorance and wealth. These people belong in prison. And many of their supporters are apparently psychotic.


THE DIONYSIAN

You've had a few regular collaborators in the theatre, such as Norman René and

Bartlett Sher. How do you find the rehearsal process when you're attending as a writer as opposed to directing your own work?

CRAIG LUCAS

Oh, I love not having to be the director. Directing is hard. Directing is only possible for me when the people on the project are willing to engage in a prolonged conversation, revealing their own fears, desires and hopes. The idea of the director as dictator is about as interesting as astro turf. Norman and Bart represent a kind of collaborator where the conversation lasts well beyond a single project. There is engagement with the world as citizen—that pre-exists and stands above whatever it means to be an artist. Those men function as seers. And I come from the position that if artists aren’t seers, then why bother? I’m not so interested in people who are simply “showing what is.” I have eyes, I can see what is, thank you, do more than that or at least do it in iambic pentameter or gorgeous language or make choices that see past “what is” or I’ll be staying home and reading Plato or whatever is new from the pen of Deborah Eisenberg or Jonathan Lear. I want wisdom, and short of that, I want a vision. The visionary. There’s just too much to catch up on and wrap one’s heart and brain around to go see someone show me “what is.”
 

THE DIONYSIAN

How have you found the experience of directing other writers' work on film and stage?

CRAIG LUCAS

I haven’t directed very much work by other writers—two plays by Harry Kondoleon, one film script by a Canadian that I was asked to doctor in a matter of days and then shoot overnight, one play by Winter Miller in workshop, a few workshops of Sarah Schulman plays, a Joe Orton masterpiece…oh, and one play co-written with David Schulner. I like the mind and perspective and boundaries of another writer’s mind. Translating Chekhov, or adapting into English, however you want to name that, is similar to directing another writer’s script. It’s a level of engagement, asking questions and listening for answers, which is not dissimilar to praying, listening within for answers. To be perhaps too forthcoming, I don’t very much believe we are separate selves finally; we each seem to be aspects or fractals of a larger living substance, so I don’t take my own thoughts and inspirations any more seriously than another person’s if they’ve earned my respect in some way. I think we’re connected in ways we can’t fully appreciate.
 

THE DIONYSIAN

What constitutes success for you in your work?

CRAIG LUCAS

I think if the audience doesn’t rise up and kill you, you’ve probably had some kind of success. But if they shrug and walk away unmoved or unprovoked or aren’t brimming with questions and excitement, I think that’s a failure.

What’s perhaps most dangerous is when they cheer and you make a lot of money. That can be destructive to future work, and you have to be careful not to fall in love with that. Then you write the same play over and over. I made a lot of money once, and there was a great deal of gooey goodness flowing my way. That stuff feeds the monster. I had to go well out of my way to write something that would offend just about everybody, about things you’re not supposed to write if you’re white, privileged, successful, male, and as predicted, just about everybody who could joined in a loud chorus of extremely shaming language and disgust. So I was almost instantly freed from whatever fears I had of staying attached to praise and money. Having too much of either is not a current problem I have.

THE DIONYSIAN

Who influences you?

CRAIG LUCAS

Well…I read a wonderful book by William Gibson (TWO FOR THE SEESAW) called

“Shakespeare’s Game,” and that has influenced me. Some books by René Girard, recommended me by Christopher Shinn, have changed my orientation toward violence and the human need for scapegoating.

Over the last ten or fifteen years I’ve been reading philosophy, because I had a rather shallow education owing to my pursuit of a BFA instead of proper, wider education in Humanities. Reading Plato and Wittgenstein and now some literary lights like George Steiner and  Gershom Scholem as well as the novels of Hermann Broch, also a wide array of books on race in America—Baldwin, Nell Irvin Painter, Eric Foner, Martin Delaney…You know, strangely, some of the musicals I’ve been asked to work on have brought me into steady and lively conversation with a good number of African-American artists and artists from Africa that makes my life wider and much more interesting; it puts my ego in its place and excites me about things being said beyond my old bubble; I become less invested in spouting off, and more geared toward receiving, to questioning, engaging. And that obviously influences you, and the more you live like that, the more interesting things can get.

I’ve been working with Pam MacKinnon for a few years, and she is a rigorous asker of questions, and her questions provoke new questions, and we go back and forth and around, and that certainly influences me. Feminism is critical to being an artist today, as is the ongoing American struggle to defeat white supremacy. I think if I did not engage with these particular things, I’d be a lousier artist than I may already be.

THE DIONYSIAN

What's next for you?

CRAIG LUCAS

I’m going to direct my play I WAS MOST ALIVE WITH YOU at Playwrights Horizons; it has Deaf characters, and Deaf shadow interpreters onstage, and it’s a large undertaking. Preparing for that has been and will continue to be all-consuming. A couple of musicals are reaching the end of their journeys—AMÉLIE and SOUSATZKA—and a couple more are midway in the journey: HARD TIMES and an unnamed musical being written with songwriters Dan Messe and Nathan Tysen. Adam Guettel and I are writing something together. And then I have this new play about our new political fever dream. I’d like to read all of Proust. I’d like to work my way through PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS with the help of P.M.S. Hacker’s exhaustive multi-volume commentary. I’d really like to make a play out of this short, extraordinary new novel about the Tamil massacres in Sri Lanka called “The Story of a Brief Marriage” by Anuk Arudpragasam.


THE DIONYSIAN

What future, if any, do you see for the theatre and what advice would you give to those who want to pursue a career in it?

CRAIG LUCAS

Well, as the ultra-rich continue to buy up and control more and more media, owning not only the means of disseminating work but also the copyright to the work itself, theater remains one of the very few places where the writer holds onto the copyright. Playwrights can be corrupted but they cannot be silenced. I am optimistic about theater. If we give up the copyright the way those fools in Hollywood did in 1921, then I’ll no longer be optimistic about theater. Anyone who wants to pursue a career in theater should absolutely go for it. Be prepared to sacrifice free time. To spend a lot of time alone. To be told your work sucks. To change your mind, and often. To be judged harshly, forced to grow, opposed by powerful people who have access to readers. Those people can be extraordinarily nasty and vindictive and self serving. And they mean nothing to you or you’re not an artist. The more powerful your stories, the more unusual your approach, the more original your vision, the greater chance you’ll be called an idiot and a hack. Be prepared to be vilified. And be prepared to be overpraised, then to fall out of fashion, to struggle to continue, to search for more than your own voice, to learn who is an ally and who only appears to be one. Be prepared to live a life full of meaning, heartache and revelation.  

It helps to think of Emily Dickinson and Melville and Chekhov who were told that their work was bad or meaningless if not both. Melville went to his grave with no one saying Moby Dick was anything but a failure. Tolstoy told Chekhov to stop writing plays, because everyone agreed they were terrible. Whatever Dickinson, Melville and Chekhov had, that’s what you want.

Ask more of everybody, most especially yourself.